Lionel Shriver

You can’t possibly hate cyclists more than they hate each other

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

I’ve cycled for primary transportation for 53 years. Accordingly, I’m not naive about the degree of resentment — nay, loathing — that the general population harbours towards what I’m reluctant to dub the ‘cycling community’, since no group of people behaves less like brethren. You may hate cyclists, but you can’t possibly hate cyclists more than they hate each other.

Nevertheless, ever since pedal-pushers in London have multiplied by a factor of a bazillion in the past few years, numerous of my encounters in traffic have entailed a degree of incendiary rage that takes even this cynical veteran of the cycling wars aback. All these incidents, if you can call them that, have conformed to the same pattern. No one’s right of way was impeded; indeed, no road user was faintly inconvenienced. No life or limb was imperilled. The offended party had absolutely no reason to care. In sum, the triggers for these episodes didn’t matter.

Twice now at the same intersection in Southwark — which makes me wonder if the same taxi driver lies in wait for days on end, poised to stage an ear-splitting hissy fit the moment that Shriver woman shows up again — I have just missed the light on Webber Street. I make a discreet left turn anyway, slipping on to The Cut, the better to make the green light across Waterloo Road. The traffic on The Cut has barely begun to move. I remain three inches from the curb, and four solid feet from the nearest vehicle.

I happily admit that strictly speaking this is running a red light, but I’ve never pretended to be obsessively rectitudinous on a bike (bending the rules a bit is one of the pleasures of cycling, or it used to be). Instead, I’m obsessively respectful of right of way. Making any pedestrian or motorist stop or even slightly slow down on account of some little infraction on my part is not cricket. But if I haven’t affected any other party whatsoever, not even inducing the tiniest swerve or hesitation, who cares?

Taxi drivers care. Both times, one cab driver went stark raving bonkers: screaming, flailing, spewing profanity, and leaning on the horn all the way across Waterloo Road and on to Baylis. You’d think I’d sprung crazily without warning in front of his bumper and brought the poor fellow to a nerve-racking halt. Maybe it’s a dieting strategy. That geezer burned all the calories in his breakfast berating a total stranger for doing basically nothing.

Then there’s the Tesco car park. Take my word for it — this is my column, so you might as well — I arrive at a mini roundabout if anything a fraction of a second before our iconic white van man arrives directly opposite. Little matter, since I’m taking a quick simple left turn, and I’m on the far outside edge of my lane. White van man is 30 feet away. There are no other moving vehicles. No pedestrians. It’s a bloody car park. Though we arrived at this dopey little roundabout fundamentally at the same time, it happens — he goes ballistic. And I mean insane. Once again, shouting, thumping, cursing, hitting the horn and carrying on for a solid minute or more. I so hadn’t inconvenienced him that if I weren’t there, he’d have driven exactly the same route in exactly the same amount of time. Still, had we been in the US, he’d have lunged from his van with a rifle, and I’d have been shot.

Even weirder: I was circling Buckingham Palace on my way from Green Park to Birdcage Walk. It was a Sunday, and most of the vicinity was closed to traffic. Someone had hit the (tryingly protracted) pedestrian light, but the pedestrians were long gone, so big deal. Riding slowly and checking in both directions, I coasted through the red light. At which point, a black taxi curved well in front of me towards Birdcage Walk. The cab was 50 feet away, and I was behind it. But the passenger leaned so far out of her backseat window that I feared she’d fall out. Waving her arms about, she screeched hysterical opprobrium at a volume that must have wrecked her voice, and that’s assuming the lady didn’t have a stroke. I was nowhere near her taxi. I’d not distressed anyone or put anyone out, not the nonexistent pedestrians, and certainly not her driver. What was her problem? I have never seen anyone go that nuts on the Queen’s highway over something so negligible that had nothing to do with her.

I have theories. Clearly, London traffic is pulsating with a collective antipathy for cyclists, a proportion of which is well-earned. That antipathy is desperate for an outlet, so that the most harmless, inconsequential infraction by a cyclist will merit outsize rage, because technically it’s still an infraction, so it will suffice for an excuse to explode. Motorists and even passengers apparently crave opportunity to disgorge their vitriol. Yet from my observation, there’s no shortage of truly appalling cyclists who really do endanger the lives of others, including mine. I never see these flagrantly reckless scofflaws yelled at.

Otherwise, the rage I keep slamming up against could be free-floating, not particular to cyclists, but stalking the city for any arbitrary target. This prospect is more unnerving: the whole of our capital city smogged by a combustible miasma of nonspecific wrath that a tiny spark will ignite.

In any event, it’s obvious from these bizarrely frequent harangues that the aggrieved are grateful for pretexts to vent their fury, be it aimed at cyclists or at the generally awful world at large. In providing a channel for their spleen, I make their day. So this holiday season, I’ll keep making inconspicuous left-hand turns against the light, ignoring pedestrian signals in the absence of any pedestrians, and quietly skirting car-park roundabouts in defiance of white van man’s malice as a favour. In letting off the steam out there, I sacrifice myself, and make the city a safer place.

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